Sound Thinking: Practice of Acoustics

Rolins Thomas Roy

Volume 4, Issue 2. September 2017
pp. 70 – 79

Rolins Thomas Roy is the founder of Rolins Arcoustics, a Mumbai based consulting firm which primarily focuses on architectural acoustics and design. He is an architect with a post graduate specialization in Acoustics from the LSBU Acoustics Group, London. His work includes studios designed for eminent musicians & producers, private theaters, reference listening rooms for audiophiles, community halls, auditoriums, correction of existing spaces and consultation to institutions like the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai among others. He has delivered lectures & seminars on Building Acoustics in professional institutes and architectural schools in India. Roy is a music enthusiast and a musician. He is also one of the co-founders of Music Liberation Union(MLU) a non-profit initiative started in 2007 to provide a common platform for musicians and enthusiasts to promote all genres of music.

In this practice essay, Roy brings into focus the issues of designing for sound in buildings, importance of which for a healthy indoor environment has not been properly understood and thus confined to a rarefied arena of highly specialized buildings like auditoriums. Acoustics and noise control must occupy our architectural sensibilities and in the absence of which any practice of architectural acoustics faces several challenges- some of which are elaborated in this essay.

How aware are we of the sense of sound?

One can say with some certainty that the sense of ‘seeing’ is uppermost while developing architectural concepts during the design phase of a building. Also considered are climatic conditions, thermal comfort, inclusion of natural light and air within the spaces and a play of light and shadows. Upon further detailing the internal spaces, how much attention is paid to internal acoustics or comfort related to sound?

“From the very outset in any building development, the selection of the site, the location of buildings on the site, and even the arrangement of spaces within the building can, and often do, influence the extent of the acoustical problems involved. The materials and construction elements that shape the finished spaces will also determine how sounds will be perceived in that space as well as how they will be transmitted to adjacent spaces.”

– William J. Cavanaugh and Joseph A. Wilkes, Architectural Acoustics, Principles and Practice (1999).

There is a certain way the architectural education and practice focuses specifically on the sense of seeing though we talk a lot about the ‘designing for the senses’. Before you read further, I invite you to try to recollect from your memory the following scenarios and select the appropriate response which will then define your level of comfort & experience.

A) Try completing a task in your work environment, assess the time taken to complete the same.
1. In an open plan office
2. In the conference room
3. At your workplace when a colleague’s phone keeps ringing in the next cabin and you can hear her/him despite the doors being closed.

B) Listening to your favourite piece of music or work of your favourite musician.
1. In your office cabin
2. In your bedroom
3. In a car with windows closed
4. In the washroom
5. In a live in concert

C) Try meditating in one of the following spaces.
1. Inside a gym –a room with high ambient noise, impact noise of weights being handled or noisy air-conditioner.
2. In your bedroom with windows open to peak time traffic noise, honking or aircraft noise.
3. Outdoors in a silent environment with the sound of running water.

D) Try singing in one of the following spaces.
1. Bathroom
2. Living room
3. In a car with windows closed
4. A square room
5. A rectangular room
6. Under a dome ceiling

The experience in each of the scenarios mentioned above is subjective and cannot be generalized. Yet, they define a sense of general well-being. Aspects related to sound or aural comfort is a vital part of overall quality of indoor environments but is paid least attention. Acoustics impacts everything from how effective a teacher is in a classroom, or employee productivity in office settings, or performance quality in auditoriums, to even the market value of apartments. Acoustical design criteria for an office conference room will differ greatly rom that of a primary school classroom. The acoustical parameters differ for every space based on its function. Recognizing this and designing for auditory comfort has tremendous value.